The word dashi, until quite recently, held for me a linguistic status not unlike credit-default swaps back when the economy first imploded. I knew that dashi was a Japanese broth, and I knew that many of the smartest chefs in America—Wylie Dufresne, Eric Ripert, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and more—made dashi central to their cooking. And I’d heard that more and more chefs were following their example. But I had no real clue what dashi was. This became intolerable after I experienced the ethereal tofu mousseline with mushroom dashi at Daniel Patterson’s Coi in San Francisco, and the ecstasy of David Chang’s clams and potatoes with bacon dashi at Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan. Self-respect now demanded that I make sense of this mysterious ingredient. For me, that meant not only learning how to make dashi, but also how to turbocharge other dishes with dashi’s savory power.
I began with a friend’s copy of an out-of-print 2009 book titled Dashi and Umami, with forewords by Heston Blumenthal and Nobu Matsuhisa. Dashi, I read, is the all-purpose stock and seasoning of traditional Japanese cooking, used in everything from fish-poaching liquids to salad dressings and typically composed of only two ingredients: kombu seaweed and dried, fermented bonito, a tuna-like fish. Kombu and dried bonito are both extremely high in flavor compounds known as glutamates, experienced by our palates as umami, the so-called fifth flavor. Glutamates exist in plenty of Western foods, like roast meats, dried anchovies, tomatoes, smoked pork and mushrooms. But dashi is critical to Japanese cooking in the way that olive oil is essential to Mediterranean food, making Japanese cuisine arguably the only one on earth built around not a cooking fat, but a flavor principle.
- Japanese Cooking: Pantry Essentials
- A Self-Guided Study of Japanese Food
- Tokyo, Day 1: Breakfast Sushi, Buddhist Lunch, Spicy Cod Pancakes
- It Takes a Tough Man to Make Tender Tofu
- David Myers: Japanese Recipes
From Shizuo Tsuji’s 1980 ultra-classic, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, I discovered there are three levels of dashi: low-quality instant, made from a powdered mix; a more respectable version, made by steeping inexpensive kombu in hot water, along with bonito flakes sold in plastic bags (hana-katsuo); and finally, the high-end artisanal type, made with rare, expensive kombu and dried bonito purchased in whole, rock-hard fillets known as katsuo-bushi and shaved into flakes right before cooking. This last kind of dashi creates a profoundly transcendent broth of, in Tsuji’s words, “subtle flavor and delicate fragrance.”